Joni Mitchell: the accidental conservative?

Ben-Peter Terpstra
If Joni Mitchell is a straight-out leftist, she isn't a very good one. Even Big Yellow Taxi, one of her best-known "left-wing" hits is strikingly polite: "Hey farmer farmer/ Put away that D.D.T. now/Give me spots on my apples/But leave me the birds and the bees/Please!"   

I like it when hippies use manners. Well she did use the "p" word. And there's nothing particularly wrong with choosing not to buy D.D.T. apples.  Kind of free-market, I guess; consumer choice, yada, yada. Or am I just a sucker for a Canadian blonde?

In 1998, Neil Strauss of The New York Times Magazine analyzed Mitchell's moodiness, saying how some people liken her to a "loose cannon," or a "bitter" woman - and those are just her friends!

He observed:

Over the course of three days of conversations, Mitchell will compare herself to Mozart, Blake and Picasso; she will say that the lyrics to one of her songs "have a lot of symbolic depth, like the Bible" and describe her music as so new it needs its own genre name.

I'm not going to scoff. Truth is I'm just happy she knows that (a) Mozart was great; (b) who Blake was and (c) that the Bible does have some depth to it.  There are so many clueless artists out there.

At times, Mitchell sounds unintentionally funny; especially when she doesn't get why black radio isn't into her. I don't know. Hard to explain really: it is kind of like asking why most Latinos don't buy The New York Times and a spinach croissant before work.

Mitchell is like a Marlboro girl. You know: the cool-looking, hippie chick, low-maintenance performer that even conservative footballers like. Long hair. Suntanned face. Here's Denis Law from the Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio reviewing Mitchell's concert in 1974 (Feb 3): 

 It was a concert full of pleasant surprises. There was no ceremony about her introduction. Tom Scott, leader of the L. A. Express, Joni's back-up band, merely said "Ladies and Gentlemen, Joni Mitchell."

[snip]

Now, she's dressed in a white blouse and jeans with high-heeled slipper-affair shoes. Cigarette in left hand glass of wine in the right. She looks out at the audience and the arena as if she's never seen it before.

She sat down at the piano and went into a nice version of "Blonde in the Bleachers." One more number and she was gone for good.

As a post-Vietnam War baby I'm sorry I couldn't make it.

Which brings me to another point: Mitchell, to some, seems more relevant and cooler than ever in these politically intense times. Many of us know at least some Mitchell lyrics "we get."

I'm sure my socially conservative grandmother secretly enjoys this line from Big Yellow Taxi: "They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique/ And a swinging hot spot." 

I'm sure the guys over at Reason and Catholic pro-lifers like this line: "Late last night/I heard the screen door slam/And a big yellow taxi/Took away my old man."

My favourite: "They took all the trees/And put them in a tree museum/And they charged the people/A dollar and a half just to see' em." Here, Mitchell is singing about the government in Honolulu. They are taxing beauty. They're screwing the people and even I - decades removed - feel like throwing a pie at the perpetuators, giving the state the angry fist, and sticking it to the Man.

Both Sides Now stands out too as a deliciously innocent song to right-seeing eyes: "I've looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose and still somehow/It's life illusions I recall/I really don't know life at all." But in context, it is also bold, written at a time when some hippies "knew it all." Here, Mitchell is the blonde subversive agent of change, the anti-guru. Think Ecclesiastes.

In Break, Blow, Burn, the libertarian-minded Professor Camille Paglia too fuels the case that Mitchell's "Woodstock" is one of the world's best poems, in part, because she "confides her doubts about her own splendid vision." 

Also:

Partly because she did not perform at Woodstock, her version has more distance and detachment. Her delivery makes lavish use of dynamics, so that we feel affirmation, then a fading confidence of will. This "Woodstock" is a harrowing lament for hopes dashed and energies tragically wasted. It's an elegy for an entire generation, flamingly altruistic yet hedonistic and self-absorbed, bold yet naive, abundantly gifted yet plagued by self-destruction. These contradictions were on massive display at Woodstock, where the music was pitifully dependent on capitalistic technology and where the noble experiment in pure democracy was sometimes indistinguishable from squalid regression to the primal horde.       

Most radically, though, when the young Mitchell fell pregnant, she unselfishly adopted her baby out.
If Joni Mitchell is a straight-out leftist, she isn't a very good one. Even Big Yellow Taxi, one of her best-known "left-wing" hits is strikingly polite: "Hey farmer farmer/ Put away that D.D.T. now/Give me spots on my apples/But leave me the birds and the bees/Please!"   

I like it when hippies use manners. Well she did use the "p" word. And there's nothing particularly wrong with choosing not to buy D.D.T. apples.  Kind of free-market, I guess; consumer choice, yada, yada. Or am I just a sucker for a Canadian blonde?

In 1998, Neil Strauss of The New York Times Magazine analyzed Mitchell's moodiness, saying how some people liken her to a "loose cannon," or a "bitter" woman - and those are just her friends!

He observed:

Over the course of three days of conversations, Mitchell will compare herself to Mozart, Blake and Picasso; she will say that the lyrics to one of her songs "have a lot of symbolic depth, like the Bible" and describe her music as so new it needs its own genre name.

I'm not going to scoff. Truth is I'm just happy she knows that (a) Mozart was great; (b) who Blake was and (c) that the Bible does have some depth to it.  There are so many clueless artists out there.

At times, Mitchell sounds unintentionally funny; especially when she doesn't get why black radio isn't into her. I don't know. Hard to explain really: it is kind of like asking why most Latinos don't buy The New York Times and a spinach croissant before work.

Mitchell is like a Marlboro girl. You know: the cool-looking, hippie chick, low-maintenance performer that even conservative footballers like. Long hair. Suntanned face. Here's Denis Law from the Journal-News, Hamilton, Ohio reviewing Mitchell's concert in 1974 (Feb 3): 

 It was a concert full of pleasant surprises. There was no ceremony about her introduction. Tom Scott, leader of the L. A. Express, Joni's back-up band, merely said "Ladies and Gentlemen, Joni Mitchell."

[snip]

Now, she's dressed in a white blouse and jeans with high-heeled slipper-affair shoes. Cigarette in left hand glass of wine in the right. She looks out at the audience and the arena as if she's never seen it before.

She sat down at the piano and went into a nice version of "Blonde in the Bleachers." One more number and she was gone for good.

As a post-Vietnam War baby I'm sorry I couldn't make it.

Which brings me to another point: Mitchell, to some, seems more relevant and cooler than ever in these politically intense times. Many of us know at least some Mitchell lyrics "we get."

I'm sure my socially conservative grandmother secretly enjoys this line from Big Yellow Taxi: "They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot/With a pink hotel, a boutique/ And a swinging hot spot." 

I'm sure the guys over at Reason and Catholic pro-lifers like this line: "Late last night/I heard the screen door slam/And a big yellow taxi/Took away my old man."

My favourite: "They took all the trees/And put them in a tree museum/And they charged the people/A dollar and a half just to see' em." Here, Mitchell is singing about the government in Honolulu. They are taxing beauty. They're screwing the people and even I - decades removed - feel like throwing a pie at the perpetuators, giving the state the angry fist, and sticking it to the Man.

Both Sides Now stands out too as a deliciously innocent song to right-seeing eyes: "I've looked at life from both sides now/From win and lose and still somehow/It's life illusions I recall/I really don't know life at all." But in context, it is also bold, written at a time when some hippies "knew it all." Here, Mitchell is the blonde subversive agent of change, the anti-guru. Think Ecclesiastes.

In Break, Blow, Burn, the libertarian-minded Professor Camille Paglia too fuels the case that Mitchell's "Woodstock" is one of the world's best poems, in part, because she "confides her doubts about her own splendid vision." 

Also:

Partly because she did not perform at Woodstock, her version has more distance and detachment. Her delivery makes lavish use of dynamics, so that we feel affirmation, then a fading confidence of will. This "Woodstock" is a harrowing lament for hopes dashed and energies tragically wasted. It's an elegy for an entire generation, flamingly altruistic yet hedonistic and self-absorbed, bold yet naive, abundantly gifted yet plagued by self-destruction. These contradictions were on massive display at Woodstock, where the music was pitifully dependent on capitalistic technology and where the noble experiment in pure democracy was sometimes indistinguishable from squalid regression to the primal horde.       

Most radically, though, when the young Mitchell fell pregnant, she unselfishly adopted her baby out.